by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Over the years, many analysts –- including yours truly –- have succumbed to the temptation of over-thinking the Buffalo Bills.
We’ve all wanted to solve the mystery of why this once-proud franchise has failed to reach the postseason each of the past 12 years. Our sleuthing has generally morphed us into armchair economists. We’ve broken down the impact of playing in a small market. We’ve tried to extrapolate deep meaning from the Bills’ annual Toronto venture. We’ve even gone meteorological, attributing some of this team’s perils to the supposedly dreadful weather in Buffalo.
It’s foolish to make something that’s easy hard. The Bills aren’t a mystery: they’ve missed the postseason 12 straight years because they’ve lacked talent. Nothing more. They seemed to survive their "small market" just fine when they were reaching Super Bowls in the 1990s. Some say that the market and the weather haven’t made Buffalo a "natural landing spot" for free agents, but if there were such a thing as natural landing spots, then wouldn’t Seattle, Green Bay, Minnesota, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Oakland all have problems? And wouldn’t teams from the supposedly desirable cities like Phoenix, San Diego, Miami, New Orleans, Atlanta and Dallas be cleaning up continually in free agency?
The Bills haven’t won because they haven’t gathered enough talent. We can have a discussion about who is to blame for this (Ralph Wilson? Management? Coaching staff?). But what good does backtracking over the past decade do for painting a picture of the 2012 Bills? This team is entering its third year under the leadership of general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey. Though these two did not ignite the organization into a contender overnight, they have done a stellar job in getting things on the right track. Nix has drafted relatively well and, this past off-season, he roped in the biggest defensive free agent on the market, defensive end Mario Williams. (It’s amazing how much more desirable a city and its weather can be when there’s $50 million guaranteed involved.)
Last season, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, playing in a spread offense that Chan Gailey and the coordinator Curtis Modkins tailored for him, posted 14 touchdowns and a passer rating of 97.8 in leading the Bills to a 5-2 start. Wanting to get the 29-year-old Fitzpatrick locked up before his value climbed even further, the Bills signed him to a seven-year, $62 million contract extension, $24 million of which was guaranteed. What followed, of course, was a 1-8 faceplant.
Most likely, Fitzpatrick did not get content after his big deal –- he just got figured out and exposed. Call it Tommy Maddox syndrome. Often, mid-level quarterbacks who find themselves in the right scheme will flourish early on. Teams will study them more closely and eventually solve the scheme. No coach in the history of football has ever concocted a scheme that befuddled an entire league for years and years.
Fitzpatrick simply does not appear to have the talent to be an elite quarterback. His arm strength is just OK. His accuracy runs hot and cold. Because he mixes these traits with a gunslinger’s mentality, he can be somewhat prone to mistakes. The Bills are hoping that extensive off-season work with new quarterbacks coach David Lee will smooth some of Fitzpatrick’s flaws. (Being from Harvard and spending the bulk of his early career as a fringe backup, Fitzpatrick had never had anyone diligently work on his mechanics before.) Perhaps it can help, but at the pro level, players generally are what they are. For example, perennial "change of scenery" mention Vince Young has reportedly struggled to learn Buffalo’s offense and will most likely fail to supplant Tyler Thigpen.
A coach can only work with the players he has. Give Gailey credit for recognizing what Fitzpatrick truly is and adapting his offense accordingly. Gailey could have built a conservative system that minimized his quarterback’s impact, but he realized that Fitzpatrick’s limitations do not extend to the mental side of the game. Unlike most so-so-armed passers, Fitzpatrick reads the field fairly well. Because he tends to play fast when his pocket quivers, he is better reading things before the snap than after the snap. So, Gailey built a horizontal spread offense. A horizontal spread often involves quick-strike decisions off three- and five-step drops, which means the quarterback can often determine where the ball goes before the snap.
This type of quick-strike system can help mitigate the effect of defenses figuring out how to exploit Fitzpatrick’s limitations. But Fitzpatrick isn’t the only limited player. A big reason Buffalo got figured out last season was their wide receiving group wasn’t very good. It still isn’t.
No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson can play, but even he has distinct shortcomings. (He was drafted in the seventh round for a reason.) Johnson is not particularly fast and he offers only "deceptive quickness." That’s at least better than "no quickness," especially since it comes from fine-tuned mechanics and feints (attributes that can be learned and augmented). Still, Johnson is a top receiving option who does not command constant double teams, which is tough on a passing game.
The Bills tried to upgrade at receiver by pursuing Robert Meachem in free agency, but he ultimately signed with San Diego. Hey, maybe the weather does impact some free agents after all ... or, maybe a proven offensive system like Norv Turner’s and a cannon-armed quarterback like Philip Rivers are good lures. The pursuit of Meachem may have rubbed Donald Jones the wrong way, but there are more important thing than Jones getting over hurt feelings. For one, he needs to bounce back from the severe ankle injury he suffered last November.
Third-round rookie T.J. Graham figures to challenge for Jones’s starting spot. At 5-11 and 180, it’s easy to view Graham as a slot contender. However, the Bills like to align bigger bodies inside, which is why guys like third-year pro Marcus Easley (6-foot-3, 216 pounds), journeyman Derek Hagan (6-foot-2, 217 pounds), sinewy David Nelson (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) and special teamer Ruvell Martin (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) are on the roster. The Bills are committed to having big guys inside; when 5-11 running back C.J. Spiller lined up at wide receiver last season, he was usually kept outside, even though that was a much tougher transition than playing the slot.
Of course, part of the reason Buffalo kept Spiller wide was that they love to throw him bubble screens. With all of the above receivers lacking acceleration and quickness, Spiller’s explosive burst and agility can be like a gulp of ice water to this otherwise dehydrated passing attack. He still has a lot to learn about playing wide receiver, though, and he may get fewer reps at that spot given the improvements he showed in pressing the hole and letting inside blocks develop as a ballcarrier last year.
Then again, the Bills can keep Spiller wide as long as Fred Jackson is healthy. Though Buffalo started to shrivel before Jackson’s season-ending fractured fibula last November, there’s no arguing that the Pro Bowl-caliber veteran is a key to this offense. Not only is he a proficient inside and outside runner, but he’s also adept as a pass blocker and dangerous in the short passing game. It’s rare to see a team give a three-year contract to a 31-year-old running back, but at $10.75 million, the Bills got an absolute steal.
Though not regarded as fast, Jackson brings value because he handles the ball well out of a single-back set. Spiller does, too. This gives Buffalo’s spread offense a running dimension, which is vital considering the mediocrity of the wide receivers. The Bills could get even more dimension to their spreads by making Brad Smith a full-time slot weapon, but for whatever reason, they seem bent on grooming him into a Wildcat specialist.
Another reason the Bills go with the spread is that they have an offensive line that is rich in agility but poor in power. Joe D’Alessandris does a great job coaching this unit. Injuries have been a problem, players have been new to their positions, and sheer ability has been scarce in some spots. Yet the Bills’ front five was phenomenal at times last season in recognizing complicated pass protection assignments and playing as a unit.
Buddy Nix identified left tackle as a problem area this past offseason. To fix it, he gambled by spending a second-round pick on Georgia’s Cordy Glenn. The 6-foot-6, 343-pounder has obvious upside, but he spent the vast majority of his collegiate career at guard. The plan is to keep agile 2009 second-rounder Andy Levitre at the top guard spot. And the Bills would rather fill the right guard position with Kraig Urbik. Unless Glenn self-destructs, he’ll be groomed for the long haul at left tackle. The hope is he can supplant last year’s heavy-footed fourth-round pick, Chris Hairston, right away.
If Urbik struggles as he did in Pittsburgh, serviceable run-blocker Chad Rinehart could find himself back with the first unit. Rinehart doesn’t have great natural ability –- which may be why the Bills used a sixth-round pick on Mark Asper -– but he survived well enough as run-blocker when Urbik had to fill in at center after Eric Wood tore his ACL last November. The hope is that Wood can fully recover from a serious injury for the second time in his four-year career (you may recall the horrific compound leg fracture he suffered in 2009). The question is: can Wood recoup the mobility that makes him so effective in this space-oriented blocking scheme?
Rounding out the offensive line is overachieving right tackle Erik Pears, who must guard his job from fifth-rounder Zebrie Sanders. Sanders showed a good football IQ and natural talent at Florida State, but dropped in the draft because of alarming bouts of inconsistency. Because he played the left and right side in college, he could serve as a utility tackle (though Hairston has the early lead for that role). The Bills aren’t big on employing six-man lines, though, and would probably be more inclined to use 270-pound tight ends Scott Chandler and Lee Smith for blocking reinforcements.
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Fifty million dollars guaranteed was too much to spend on Mario Williams, especially given that the seventh-year pro has battled injuries for much of the past two years, but it’s easy to see why the Bills splurged. An impotent pass rush was by far the leading reason this defense ranked 30th in scoring and 26th in yards allowed last season. The Bills spent a lot of time in their dime package, where then-coordinator George Edwards ostensibly preferred to get pressure from a natural four-man rush rather than blitz.
Edwards was let go after the season. Linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt –- you may remember him from when he sat on the proverbial hot seat as the head coach in Chicago and Miami -– was promoted to coordinator and immediately declared the Bills a 4-3 defense. They’ve changed to a 4-3 defense several times in recent years ... usually shortly before or shortly after changing to a 3-4. The hope is that the schematic vacillation will cease under Wannstedt.
Williams’s arrival should help foster schematic stability. Though he himself transitioned to a quasi-outside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 last year, he is as natural a 4-3 end as there ever was. Not only is he capable of turning the corner on passing downs, but he’s also a staunch playside anchor against the run. In recent years, poor run defense in the trenches has often been the propelling force behind Buffalo’s schematic flip-flopping.
Williams isn’t the only free agent end coming aboard. The Bills spent $8 million guaranteed in a four-year, $19.5 million deal to get Mark Anderson. He’s a speed-rushing specialist coming off a 10-sack campaign with the Patriots (his first double-digit sack season since his rookie year with the Bears in 2006). There will probably be plenty of optimism about Anderson’s ability to play the run, but anyone with access to 2007-10 film knows better. The Bills have a serviceable veteran in Chris Kelsay who can play on running downs. They can also experiment with 2010 third-round defensive end Alex Carrington or Spencer Johnson, a fairly nimble veteran who is experienced at operating in traffic.
Whatever the Bills do with Anderson, the focus must be on maximizing his pass-rushing prowess. They don’t have much in the way of other resources outside, as Shawne Merriman is a shell of his former self and third-year linebacker Arthur Moats, who has at times been used as a pass-rushing specialist, is still a work in progress.
The remodeled defensive end position makes it easy to overlook this front four’s encouraging prospects inside. Last year’s No. 3 overall pick, Marcell Dareus, lived up to the hype. Dareus can create congestion as a nose tackle or get penetration as a three-technique. He has uncommon body control and fluidity for a man of his size and should only get better with experience. That’s frightening for opponents, considering that the veteran next to him, Kyle Williams, offers a similarly diverse tableau of skills. Williams, who was medically cleared in June from his 2011 season-ending foot injury, doesn’t have Dareus’s raw talent, but he compensates with tenacity and wisdom. It will be tough for Dwan Edwards or massive third-year pro Torell Troup to snag a lot of snaps from this duo.
The worst part about Buffalo’s poor pass rush was that it nullified what turned out to be a pretty decent secondary. It was a secondary that wasn’t quite good enough to regularly play man coverage across the board, but the hope is this will change with veteran cornerback Drayton Florence being replaced by first-round rookie Stephon Gilmore. The speedy South Carolina Gamecock will start immediately; many scouts believe he’s already refined in two areas in which most rookie corners struggle: zone coverage and run defense.
Gilmore is more comfortable in off-coverage, so he may not play a lot of press technique. Rangy free safety Jairus Byrd will be more inclined to cheat to his side, as the other starting corner, 2011 second-round pick Aaron Williams, is comfortable playing press. The Bills showed a lot of faith in Williams down the stretch last season, even letting him defend Santonio Holmes with no help. Williams can play the slot, but that figures to be a better long-term home for playmaking veteran Terrence McGee. Injuries are a concern with the 31-year-old McGee, though. He missed 10 games last season, seven the year before, and five the year before that.
Depth at corner isn’t supposed to be an issue given that the Bills spent a first-round pick on Leodis McKelvin in 2008. However, McKelvin’s tendency for giving up big plays landed him on the pine last year, playing behind vulnerable seventh-rounder Justin Rogers. The Bills would presumably love for this year’s fourth-round pick, Ron Brooks, to beat out both McKelvin and Rogers.
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Linebacker is the soft spot on this defense, which is why it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wannstedt copy predecessor George Edwards and play dime instead of nickel on passing downs. That would bring safety Bryan Scott on the field and take one of the linebackers off. Scott, who years ago lost some confidence after suffering a concussion, has regained a hold of his career as a specialty passing-down linebacker. He can’t rest on his laurels, though, because 2011 fourth-round pick Da’Norris Searcy got some valuable experience filling in for injured veteran George Wilson last November. Wilson, by the way, is one of the more underrated players in the game. He’s not fast, but he’s heady in the box and has a knack for getting around the ball.
As for the men making up this iffy linebacking unit: veteran Nick Barnett doesn’t quite play as fast as he used to, but he’s still serviceable on the strong side. He’ll be challenged by Arthur Moats, especially in the nickel package. Weakside man Kirk Morrison figures to struggle simply because, well, he has struggled for years now. Don’t be surprised if rookies Nigel Bradham or Tank Carder push him out. In the middle, second-year pro Kelvin Sheppard has a feel for attacking downhill, but a lack of flexibility in space may force him to the bench on third down.
The Bills have long had one of football’s surest veteran kicking duos in Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman. There are rumblings that Moorman could be challenged by undrafted rookie Shawn Powell, which seems odd considering the two-time Pro Bowler averaged a career-high 48.2 yards per boot last season, but raw numbers aren’t everything with punting. In the return game, it’s weapons galore, as Justin Rogers, Brad Smith, C.J. Spiller, Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee have all been big playmakers.
This will be a telling year for the Bills. We’ll find out if they can truly win with a crafty scheme but limited quarterback. The defense should improve now that the front four has teeth, but a lot of young players will once again be adjusting to a new scheme.